Last week I published a research based article about 10 scientifically-backed reasons why humans self-harm. Today, I’m going to get a lot more personal. PTSD is an extremely difficult disorder to live with. Coping is a daily struggle. In the past year I have stabilized in a treatment program and made pretty big strides in my personal development. A few years ago, while living in Boulder, CO, I was introduced to mindfulness therapy. These therapies and supports have helped me come up with better coping mechanisms. Things like writing, exercise, reading, watching movies, yoga, mindful cooking or playing, and self care. But for a while, self-harm was one of my go-to coping tools.
Self-harm is a widely misunderstood phenomenon. Our social consciousness seems to center the discussion of self-harm around gothic teenage girls slashing their wrists for “attention.” I think that attention is hardly the goal of self-harm; most cutters or other type of self-harmers I’ve known have been very deliberate about hiding the evidence, but even if people are harming themselves for attention, I do not understand why that means we should not give it to them. Frankly, if one of my daughters started cutting herself in front of me for attention, I’d give it to her.
Anyway, a lot more people self-harm than black garbed teenagers, and self-harm has many more forms than cutting. The most prevalent forms of self-harm I have engaged in are cutting my body, and taking drugs. Drug addiction is a big massive subject in my life that’s gonna take way more than one post to discuss. This post is going to cover cutting as a form of coping with PTSD symptoms. I don’t believe in trigger warnings, because I have no idea what triggers you personally, but I’m telling you right now: THE SUBJECT OF THIS POST IS CUTTING. Take care of your own triggers and read wisely, please.
The first time I cut myself, I fit the stereotype exactly. I was thirteen years old, wearing raver pants that I’d purchased from Hot Topic, and some kind of band tee or maybe a black fitted wife beater with a glittery silver razor blade printed across my barely-there chest. I did it because my friends did it. I did it because I thought it somehow made me cooler, more like dead-by-27 Kurt Cobain, whom I idolized. The first time I cut myself, I barely broke the skin. I used a new razor, from a pack I’d lifted from Freddies, and winced as a I scratched it against my arm. I didn’t much like the sting of it, but I did like the cherry red blood, and the marks it left on my arms. When I compared them to my friends, theirs were thicker and deeper, and the scars far darker than mine. One of them called me a poser. I moved on to self-harming through drug use, and took to that much more keenly.
I didn’t think about cutting again for years. Drugs were my favorite form of self-destruction. They obliterated my mind and personality, they counted as hurting the body I loathed for not looking the way I wanted it to, and they felt wonderful. Plus, they made for some really great stories. Eventually, I got sober, but I started using again after I developed PTSD. Then, drugs took on a new purpose. They were no longer a form of recreation, or a passive way of a hurting myself. Drugs became a method for hiding from my traumatic memories. A coping mechanism, albeit a bad one. But they weren’t enough. I ended up cutting, heavily, and I did it for two primary reasons:
Drugs masked a lot of my PTSD symptoms, but one symptom they made worse was my dissociation. Dissociation is a coping mechanism on its own, one which our bodies perform for us once we’ve reached the limit of what we can endure, but living in a constant or near-constant state of dissociation is unhealthy.
I don’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder, which is such a high state of dissocation that sufferers actually form multiple sentient personalities. When I dissociate, it is either via depersonalization or derealization. If I am being totally honest, part of the reason why I am able to speak so candidly about my trauma is not bravery or even practice, but because I live in such an intense and near-constant state of derealization that it doesn’t even matter. Another way I dissociate is through physical numbing, which of course, opiates make worse.
I wasn’t using to stop feeling my body, I was using to stop feeling my psychic pain. Self-harm became a way for me to feel my body again. Because I was so unused to sensation, the feeling of cutting my skin actually felt good. I got a lot of tattoos and piercings in the first couple years after my PTSD diagnosis, and although I genuinely appreciate that particular aesthetic, part of the reason I did it so often was because the feeling was orgasmic. Okay, not quite orgasmic, but close. Once all my money started going to drugs, I stopped being able to afford the frequent body mods, so I started cutting instead.
Like when I was a teenager, I never cut too deeply. Scratching my skin, just barely breaking it, felt good. Cutting down through layers hurt. But I did it enough to merit wearing long pants to cover my legs and long sleeves or arm warmers to cover my arms. My scars are faint now, but if you look closely, you’ll see a crisscross of thin scar tissue on the soft white belly of my forearms.
The other reason I cut was to stop my flashbacks. While cutting to regain sensation was a slow, detached process, cutting myself to relieve a flashback was a rushed, tear stained affair performed with shaking hands while crouched, hiding, in a bathtub or closet. Usually it involved breaking open a shaving razor, which I’d do with the help of a pen or nail clippers that I wedged between the plastic clips holding the blades in place. My hands would shake as I held the short, slim razor and pressed it into whatever skin was still yielding and not too raw from the last time.
Flashbacks are one of the most terrifying symptoms of PTSD. A flashback is a sudden, intrusive perception that the trauma is re-occurring. The intensity of my flashbacks have ranged from re-experiencing the physical feelings of an assault, such as a racing heart, dilated pupils, intense fear and helplessness, shortness of breath, and panic; to actually hallucinating that I am being attacked again. Most of the time, my flashbacks can best be explained as a feeling of layered reality. I can still perceive my actual physical location, but the mental image, which is a memory of my assault, becomes so strong that I confuse the two. When I am experiencing a flashback like this, I find it difficult to compute where I am or what is happening. At any level, flashbacks are terrifying.
A healthy way of helping myself out of a flashback is through grounding. I’ll focus on an object in my physical surroundings which is distinct and new; it did not exist, nor did anything like it, at the time of my assault. I will touch it, smell it, and focus on it while reminding myself what it is, when I got it, and that it did not exist when I was assaulted. It’s not an immediate form of relief, but it’s effective and not harmful.
Before I learned that technique, however, I cut myself. If I felt myself getting triggered, I’d run to the bathroom and begin dismantling my razor. Unless I’d had a flashback recently enough to still have some razor pieces hidden away. Once I sliced into myself and began to bleed, the flashback would melt away. I loved relaxing into the relief of those pain-fighting chemicals that my body released in response.
It took me a while to realize why cutting myself was such an effective way to end a flashback. Other forms of self-harm didn’t work. I couldn’t punch myself or bang my head against a wall. The flashback worsened from those things. But if I cut myself, poof! As soon as the blood let, I was free. It took me a while, but I figured out that this works so well because any time my abuser drew blood from me, he stopped hurting me. Immediately. The moment he noticed I was bleeding, every time, he gaped at the blood as if in shock for a moment, and then stopped the attack. I have no idea why. But it happened every single time.
Self-Harm Is Not A Coping Mechanism
Self-harm is dangerous and unsustainable. Drug misuse runs the risk of overdose, disease, and other complications. Cutting could lead to infection, or even death if I accidentally cut too deeply and nicked an artery. It is effective in combating some PTSD symptoms, but only for a while. Eventually, the constancy of pain in my limbs prevented me from dissociating when I needed to. My flashbacks stopped when I drew blood, but then returned later, because I wasn’t actually facing what was causing them, or stopping them in any meaningful way. Afterall, though my abuser stopped beating me when he made me bleed, he always started up again another time.
Cutting is not a coping mechanism. It may act as one temporarily, but ultimately, it is a symptom of the PTSD. It has been years since I cut myself. My scars are healed. Sometimes I think about it. Some days I crave the sensation of the cool blade biting into my skin, but most of the time, it doesn’t even cross my mind. There are better ways to cope, and I’m glad that I have them. And, it’s pretty awesome to be able to wear shorts and tank tops without embarrassment.